“And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
A 19th century scholar of church history made an important observation regarding churches that can be helpful today. He pointed out that over the centuries the church has come to us in essentially two forms: the ‘Church type’ and the ‘Sect type’.
The ‘Church type’ has stressed institutional conformity, well defined orders of ministry, the stability and continuity of tradition. Change, if it must come at all, should come slowly. Eastern orthodox communities are probably the best example of this ‘Church type’ but other Christians, including some Lutherans, have also adopted this form.
The ‘Sect type’ are churches that seek to reform the ‘Church type’ communities by restoring what they perceive to be the true biblical form of the church. They tend to speak with a prophetic voice and place a strong emphasis on conversion, holiness of living and the authority of the Bible.This sectarian emphasis is a prominent feature of American Christianity and has taken many forms. Some Lutherans also share this ‘Sect type’ emphasis.
The fact that both types can be found in the writings of Martin Luther is significant. For Luther was a conserving but not a strictly conservative reformer. At times his writings emphasize continuity with the historic church, insisting that if some traditions serve the faith of the people they should be retained. At other times the reformer freely slaughtered sacred cows that he believed were non-essentials.
This means that Luther had a criteria for the employment of church forms that was prior to them and superior to them: the message of the Gospel. He believed that the message of the church comes before the form of the church. Which is a way of saying that the form the church takes is in the service of the Gospel.
In an age when people are skeptical of all forms of inherited authority, a stubborn insistence on ‘Church type’ forms may actually be a hindrance to the message. At the same time, the ‘Sect type’, as it seeks to recover a pure church that never was, tends to isolate and alienate, often distorting the Christian message with an undue emphasis on demand and law and appearing to have no connection with the wider Christian community.
Rooted in the principle of what one has called ‘evangelical freedom’, Lutheran congregations are not obligated to any particular form. Our chief obligation is to the message of the Cross, the good news that God justifies the ungodly. Because Lutherans also have (or should have) a clear-headed doctrine of sin, there is probably good reason for us to err on the side tradition without becoming traditionalists. Order, even if imperfect, inefficient and somewhat unjust, is better than chaos. A very old saying is helpful in thinking about this: “Tradition is the living faith of dead people. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.”
Traditional church forms can provide stability in chaotic times, a framework for congregational mission and nurture, and a witness to our continuity with the historic church. At the same time, evangelical freedom summons the congregation to place whatever forms it adopts at the service of the mission of the Gospel. Congregations are not private chaplaincies, country clubs for the like-minded. Congregations are mission outposts, always seeking to provide forms and forums through which the message of God’s love for a lost and sinful world may gain the widest possible hearing.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”